Health & Beauty | November 2009
|Who Knew I Was Not the Father? - 3|
Ruth Padawer - New York Times
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November 22, 2009
In an age of DNA, when biological relationships can be identified with certainty, it can seem absurd to hew so closely to a centuries-old idea of paternity. And yet basing paternity decisions solely on genetics places the nonbiological father’s welfare above the child’s. Phil Reilly, a lawyer who is also a clinical geneticist, has been wrestling with the policy implications of DNA testing for years, and even he is stumped about how society should manage the problem that men like Mike face. “We’re at a point in our society where the DNA molecule is ascendant, and it’s very much in the public’s consciousness that this is a powerful way to identify relationships,” Reilly says. “Yet at the same time, more people than ever are adopting children, showing that parents can very much love a child who is not their own. The difference here for many men is the combination of hurt and rage over the deceit, the fact that they’re twice beaten. I can see both sides of this argument. As a nation, we’re still in search of what the most ethical policy should be. Every solution is imperfect.”
Once a man has been deemed a father, either because of marriage or because he has acknowledged paternity (by agreeing to be on the birth certificate, say, or paying child support), most state courts say he cannot then abandon that child — no matter what a DNA test subsequently reveals. In Pennsylvania and many other states, the only way a nonbiological father can rebut his legal status as father is if he can prove he was tricked into the role — a showing of fraud — and can demonstrate that upon learning the truth, he immediately stopped acting as the child’s father. In 2003, a Pennsylvania appellate court bluntly applauded William Doran — who had been by all accounts a loving father to his 11-year-old son — for cutting off ties with the boy once DNA showed they were not related. The judges found that Doran had been tricked by his former wife into believing he was the father of their son, and he was allowed to abandon all paternal obligations.
Courts, of course, deal with paternity cases only when there is a legal dispute. Many men don’t sue because it is expensive or because they suspect they will lose anyway. And then there are those who never even discover the biological truth. How many fall in that category is impossible to quantify. The most extensive and authoritative report, published in Current Anthropology in 2006, analyzed scores of genetic studies. The report concluded that 2 percent of men with “high paternity confidence” — married men who had every reason to believe they were their children’s father — were, in fact, not biological parents. Several studies indicate that the rate appears to be far higher among unmarried fathers.
Some other number of men discover they are not biological fathers, but choose to soldier on rather than go to court, unwilling to upset their children or the relationships they have established. Tanner Pruitt, who owns a small manufacturing business in Texas, paid child support for seven years after divorcing his wife. His daughter never looked like him, but it wasn’t until she was 12 that it began to bother him. He told the girl he wanted to check something in her mouth, quickly swabbed some cheek cells and sent the samples off to a lab. After the DNA test showed they weren’t related, he contacted a lawyer, figuring the lab results would release him from child-support payments and justify reimbursement from the biological father. But the lawyer told Pruitt his only option was to take the matter to court and that doing so might mean giving up his right to see the girl at all. It might also alert her to the truth. Pruitt didn’t want to chance either possibility, so he stayed silent and kept paying.
“I spent thousands and thousands of dollars, and it hasn’t cost that biological father a penny, and yeah, I’m angry, but it would have been more harm to her psychologically than it was worth,” says Pruitt, who eventually fought for, and won, full custody. The girl, now 15 years old, recently learned from a relative that Pruitt is not her biological father. Afterward, Pruitt sat with her on a park bench, held her hand and told her the saga. “When it was all over with, she gave me a big hug and told me I’d always be her daddy,” he told me. “Even though she’s not my blood daughter, I was there the day she was born, and I’ve been there ever since, so she’s my daughter, and as long as she’s alive, she’ll always call me Dad.”
Ruth Padawer is an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Her last article for the magazine was about a dating site for “sugar daddies.”